in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: December 15, 2022

An Intro to Envy

Your co-worker gets the promotion that you applied for. You congratulate him while seething inside.

Your friend goes on a fantastic vacation and shares pics of it on Instagram. You usually “like” his stuff, but this time you don’t.

Your wife’s parents watch your sister-in-law’s children for the weekend. You’re ticked that they never do that for your kids.

A business competitor enjoys a string of successes. You start thinking about all the things you don’t like about him and why the way he does business is stupid.

You’ve likely experienced the above scenarios or something like them.

You see someone get something that you don’t have, and you feel angry and resentful.

There’s a word for that feeling: envy.

The Emotion No One Likes to Talk About

Despite it being a common emotion, people don’t like to talk about envy.

People rarely admit that they are envious of someone else. They might say they admire someone for their success, but you never hear someone say, “I’m really upset and angry at that person because they have something that I don’t!” Because that would make them seem petty and small, and further lower their already diminished feeling of status.

Not only do regular people not like to talk about envy, but scholarly types don’t like to talk about it either.

For one thing, there is a real dearth of books written about envy by psychologists. Which is weird because it creates all kinds of emotional and interpersonal problems. I could only find two books on Amazon about the psychology of envy. One takes on envy from a Freudian/psychoanalytic perspective, and the other takes a more empirical/scientific approach to the subject. That latter book, while rigorous and insightful, was published in 1991. That’s thirty years ago. That’s a long time. It was also mostly about jealousy, which is related to envy but isn’t the same thing (more on that below).

Sociologists and philosophers have written about envy a little more, but even then, the extant books and treatises from that field of study are still quite old. Sociologist Helmut Schoeck published Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour back in the 1960s. Alexis de Tocqueville (a proto-sociologist/political scientist) wrote about envy in Democracy in America, but that was published nearly 200 years back.

Philosophers Nietzsche and Kierkegaard wrote a lot about envy and its role in human life, as did Kant and Bacon. Aristotle devoted a great deal to the emotion of envy in his book Rhetoric. In fact, the definition of envy that he laid out over 2000 years ago is the definition that philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists still use today (when they do talk about envy, at least). But all those guys have been long dead for centuries. There hasn’t been too much chatter about envy from philosophers since.

So people don’t like to talk about envy — their own or others.

While we don’t like to talk about envy, understanding it can help us navigate many social conflicts. Many of the ill feelings we experience towards others have a strain of envy underlying them. Kierkegaard said that “anyone who wishes to understand the nature of offense should make a study of human envy.” I know that as I’ve read more about envy, I’ve been made more aware of it in my own life and have taken steps to quell the green-eyed monster within.

What Is Envy?

Since we don’t talk much about envy, our definition of it is varied and muddled. If you were to ask ten different people to define envy, you’d probably get ten vaguely similar and yet still distinct answers.

So let’s get Socratic here and clearly define envy.

As I said above, Aristotle laid out a pretty clear definition of envy in Rhetoric. It’s a definition that subsequent philosophers and psychologists have used and built off of as well.

According to Aristotle, “envy is pain at the good fortune of others.”

And for Aristotle, envy isn’t just pain at the good fortune of others; we also experience envy when we feel pleasure in the misfortune of others. The Germans have a word for that manifestation of envy: schadenfreude.

So envy is pain experienced at the good fortune of others or pleasure at the misfortune of others.

Whom Do We Envy?

If you look at your own experience with envy, you’ll likely notice that you envy some people but not others. Why is that?

According to Aristotle, we typically experience envy towards those we consider our equals — those we situate in our own peer group. We usually don’t envy “those who lived a hundred centuries ago, or those not yet born, or those who dwell near the Pillars of Hercules, or those whom in our opinion or that of others, we take far below us or far above us.”

Instead, we become envious of those more like us — “those who follow the same ends as ourselves . . . [and] who are after the same things.”

When you think about your own life, you’ll find this to be true.

You generally don’t envy people who experience success in work unrelated to yours. If you’re an aspiring writer, and your police officer buddy gets promoted to detective, you’ll probably feel nothing but unenvious happiness for him. His field and career trajectory are completely different from yours; you’re pursuing different ends, as Aristotle would say.

You also probably wouldn’t feel envy at hearing the news that J.K. Rowling had hit the bestseller list again with a new series of books; she’s a fellow writer, sure, but is operating in a whole different league.

But . . . if a friend who’s been trying to publish his first novel inks a big book deal — ooh, watch out! — you’ll likely be hit with a flick of the green-eyed monster’s sharp tongue.

You don’t have to be pursuing the exact same specific ends for envy to arise; it can also occur in relation to the broader aims you and your seeming peers share.

For example, you probably don’t actively envy Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, even though they have a lot more than you do. They’re just too far above your socioeconomic status to care about. But if you’re, say, an attorney, and your entrepreneurial friend sells his business for five million dollars, you might feel a stab of envy; even though you’re in different lines of work, you both share the general end of getting rich, and he now has a level of wealth that you don’t. Or, let’s say a relative becomes famous on social media for sharing motivational messages; maybe you don’t want to be a lifestyle guru, per se, but you do feel the desire for fame, generally; you might then feel envious towards your relative.

According to Aristotle, the reason why we feel envy only towards our direct or quasi equals is that it forces us to think, “That could have been me!” You look at the guy who has the good thing and think, “I’m like that guy. If he has that good thing, I should have it too!” But you don’t have it, so it hurts.

The idea that we experience envy towards those we consider our relative equals is an important one. Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard argued that the amount of envy in society (and the conflict that comes with it) will increase the more egalitarian that society becomes. We’ll flesh this idea out more in a future article.

So we experience envy towards people we consider our peers.

Thus, our working definition of envy can be stated: envy is pain at the good fortune of others, particularly those we consider our equals who are pursuing the same ends as us.

Envy Is Not Jealousy

People often conflate envy and jealousy. They’re similar emotions, but for philosophers and psychologists, there’s a distinction.

Envy is pain at the good fortune of others. You feel bad because people have something you don’t.

Jealousy is feeling pain that someone might take away something you have.

The most common situation that arouses jealousy is romantic relationships. You experience jealousy when you think your friend is trying to steal your girlfriend. Many fights and murders can be traced to the ire of a jealous lover.

Why Is Envy a Vice?

Thomas Aquinas took up Aristotle’s definition of envy and fleshed out what made it a vice in Summa Theologica. For Aquinas, envy is a vice because you feel pain towards goodness or take pleasure in misfortune.

What virtuous person would feel pain towards goodness or pleasure in misfortune? That’s the opposite of charity.

And based on Aquinas’s definition of evil (the privation of good), envy can be seen as taking joy in evil. Which is probably why John Milton made Satan an envious and resentful demon dude in his book Paradise Lost.

Not only does envy cause us to feel pain towards goodness, it often causes us to seek to reduce the amount of good in the world. When you experience not just envy, but what’s called malicious envy, you not only feel pain at the fortune of others, you want their fortune to be taken away from them. To reduce the pain we experience at witnessing the goodness of others, we’d like to see their goodness destroyed. We think, “If I can’t have what they have, they can’t have it either!”

Not only is envy a vice, it’s a strange one at that. For, unlike the case with other vices, you don’t derive any pleasure from it. With gluttony, you at least get the pleasure of stuffing your face with one slice of pizza too many. With lust, you at least get the pleasure of orgasm. With sloth, you at least get the satisfaction of just lying on the couch playing Fortnite.

With envy?

There’s not much pleasure. You mostly just feel bad.

Even when you experience schadenfreude (pleasure at the misfortune of others), it’s a bitter pleasure. You feel bad that you feel good at the misfortune of others. It doesn’t actually feel that great.

Towards a Greater Understanding of Envy

I think the above is a good start in this exploration of envy. I’ve taken a deep dive into the topic this past year, found it thoroughly interesting, and have a lot I’d like to share about it. Consider this the beginning of an intermittent series on the subject. In the subsequent articles in this series, I’d like to flesh out the experience of envy even more.

What makes envy different from righteous indignation?

How is envy related to resentment?

How does envy influence group dynamics?

What can we do about envy?

I hope you’ll join me on this exploration of this little-talked-about and yet universally-experienced emotion.

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